Paul Parker Interview: ‘I Felt Numb Before the Italia 90 Semi-Final’

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“Bobby Robson was a man who believed that you earned the right to win an England cap.” Paul Parker is recalling his England career. As the former Fulham, QPR and Manchester United defender recounts breaking into the national team, he paints a picture of how valuable a debut under Robson’s management must have felt.

“I got talked about around the 1986 World Cup when I was at Fulham. But when I moved to QPR and had a reasonably good start at QPR, the talk of me being involved got stronger and stronger. And I was in the squad at the turn of the year in 1988.

“Bobby Robson was a man who believed that you earned the right to win an England cap. You don’t just get in the squad and then suddenly go and play in a game straight away. He believed you should be able to sit and watch it from the stands, then the bench, and then hopefully the privilege of getting a part on the pitch. I think he had a few people he treated a bit differently! But he just believed and knew that certain players needed time to understand it.

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“On my part, it was great being involved. Every time you want to play. I sat and watched quite a few games from the bench; never got on. Bobby Robson believed in continuity in his team and didn’t want to ruin everything. We all did our time! Then my 15 minutes against Albania — it was something that you don’t forget. It was 3–0 at the time; I think it ended five.

“International football at that given time was in your own half. You were never going to give the ball away, because you had so much time. But the closer you got to the opponents’ goal, the game would just close up and close up. You suddenly realised, all that time sitting in the stands and on the bench, it was all for a reason: to understand it wasn’t like being a sweeper for QPR. You were a right-back for England. It was a completely different game to club football.”

But Parker’s 1989 debut against Albania didn’t immediately lead to further game time. “Even then, you got your first cap, but it took me a while to get my second one! I had to work hard for them.

“Sometimes I played in a back four, as a sweeper. When I was in the England squad, I was always going to be a right-back. Look at the centre-halves that England had at that time: Mark Wright, Tony Adams, Des Walker, Terry Butcher. There was even a Steve Bruce who couldn’t even get into the squad. I was never going to play in there. To be honest there were a lot of good right-backs too: Lee Dixon, Gary Stevens.

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“Bobby Robson always judged his players on what they’d done for their country. If a player was not having a great time at club level, he would always judge them on what they’d done for him. If they ever started to drop below that level, that’s when he’d look at it. He just stuck with the players he knew had taken him to where they were. He wanted them to get him through it. People say: ‘You only got 19 caps?’ I say: ‘Yeah. Bobby Robson was a very, very loyal man.’ I never became a regular until we got out to Italy.

Parker refers of course to Italia 90 — that summer which changed English football forever. The promise of Gazza; the magic of Gazza; the Have A Word With Him of Gazza. But just as that tournament changed Paul Gascoigne’s life, so too Paul Parker’s life.

“I grew up with World Cups”, says the 58-year-old. “1974 is the first one I remember. I remember the player from Zaire running out the wall at Brazil’s free-kick! To be a part of one, and how it ended up, it was absolutely fantastic. Even now, even though it’s been equalled, people talk about 1990 before they talk about 2018. It’s because it was in Italy. It sticks out in people’s minds. England almost went the distance. The manner in which it was done. Everything had been so negative, but so nearly turned out so, so positive.”

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Parker reflects on his own performances, thrust into a position he’d never played before… and on the greatest stage of all.

“I thought I did OK. I’m not one to pat myself on the back, but I was put into an area outside of my comfort zone — as a wing-back. I thought I was going in for the one game against Holland and then out again. I ended up playing six out of the seven games. I was involved in a lot of [attacking] where, at club level, I wouldn’t have been. I’d never played wing-back in my life. I was numb throughout. I never thought I’d be going to a World Cup. But to actually be playing games, I think I was too nervous to be nervous. I was just numb.

“I was in the tunnel looking at these Germans who were just perfection. This is an everyday occurrence to them, playing semi-finals. You always get butterflies, but I wasn’t nervous. There are games at club level where I can still remember how I felt, more than the semi-final.”

But in the semi-final against favourites West Germany, England went 1–0 down. Parker closed down Andreas Brehme’s free-kick, but his attempted block looped agonisingly over Peter Shilton, crushing English hopes as it flew between the goalkeeper’s grasp and the crossbar. It still gives Parker nightmares.

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“It took me a while to get over that. People ask me if I felt I needed to do something to make amends for what happened. I couldn’t think about that — because I was still thinking I was going to get the blame for this. All the wrong things were in my head. It took me a while to get into it. I just virtually wanted to run away and hide. I really wanted to go and do that. But at the end of the day, I put a ball into a decent area and we got back in the game.” Through Parker’s cross, Gary Lineker equalised, forcing extra-time.

“I’d never sat down to watch that game. But during the lockdown period, I watched it all. I never realised how much we deserved it more than them. How we went about it, you have to say they were the best in the world. But we were the only team that took them to the edge. They were wiping everyone out. [Lothar] Matthäus was absolutely fantastic throughout. We outplayed them. We should have got the opportunity to play in that final.”

England have not been to a World Cup final since. However, Gareth Southgate’s England reached the final of the European Championships last summer. Parker was impressed, but felt they conceded the final through risk-aversity.

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“When you look at England, success can only be counted in winning a tournament. We haven’t won a tournament. We got to a final but didn’t do ourselves justice in the playing time. Yes, it went to penalties and we lost. But other than scoring early, we slowly talked ourselves out of winning the game. The Italians were better and if they’d won over 90 minutes or 120 minutes, everyone would have gone: ‘Fair enough’.

“The European Championships was at one time the hardest thing to win. But to win a Euros is a lot easier than it used to be. England were very, very poor in it for many years. But England now have a chance — and in the World Cup because the South Americans are not as strong as they used to be in that. In the next 12 years, there is an opportunity for England to maybe win something.”

Parker may have spent most of his club career at centre-back, but his England career was on the right. He feels right-back is “a fashionable position now”, and sees one man in particular as being England’s shining light in that role.

“A lot of right-backs now are ex-wingers, they’re not out-and-out defenders. There are so many players content and happy to go and play full-back. My favourite is Reece James. He’s all-round. He can defend. The only one who can defend as well as Reece James, because of his recovery, is Kyle Walker. But Reece James can definitely get back. He’s as strong as Kyle Walker; Walker may be a little quicker, but he has enough. When he gets forward, he can score all kinds of goal, and he’s positive. For me, he’s the best all-round full-back in the Premier League. I would say the England right-back spot is between him and Kyle Walker. I can’t see Gareth Southgate thinking any different.”

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Parker won the Premier League in its first two seasons after rebranding from the old First Division. He also won the FA Cup, the League Cup, and a Charity Shield. But selecting one career highlight above all the others remains an easy-enough task.

“The greatest thing ever was to go and play for England in a World Cup in a proper footballing country, with a great bunch of lads. What we achieved — everything was against us — everyone wanted us to fail, but the players dug in.”

Parker recalls an event some years after Italia 90. Dave Beasant had been left out of the squad for that tournament as England’s fourth-choice goalkeeper. But Robson brought him in late once a young David Seaman had injured his thumb.

“I was at a theatre. Dave Beasant was there. He didn’t get a game [at Italia 90]. But Dave Beasant was talking it through on stage; you would have thought he’d played every game! He totally embraced the whole occasion. What got us through was the most important thing in football: being a team. The camaraderie was there.”

by Dom Smith

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